Evidence-Based HR

February 8, 2011 by Wally Bock

Last week I read a great post on the i4cp blog titled: “Do People Drive Business? You Bet Your Assets.” John Gibbons, the Vice President and General Manager of Research and Development at i4cp, began his post with something that definitely caught my attention.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat in a presentation delivered by a senior executive who invariably uses a phrase that really gets under my skin. As the speaker begins to extol the importance of innovation and talent I can feel it coming. As they continue on to talk about the importance of having engaged and dedicated employees I look around the room and see faces beginning to light up – in particular those of my colleagues in Human Resources. Finally, as the speaker reaches the crescendo of praise for the workforce, I have actually found myself gripping the edge of my conference room chair as those inevitable words are uttered: People are our most important asset”

Yes, yes, yes – been there, thought that. So far, this is nothing special. Then, John gets provocative.

“Let’s be honest: Can we – let alone our CEO or CFO – confidently demonstrate the true financial value that exceptionally talented and motivated people provide to our company as opposed to employees of average talent or motivation? Most of us can’t, and in fact, many of us don’t know how to begin.”

John suggests Evidence-Based HR (EBHR) as a place to begin and outlines some of the basics. It’s worth a read.

There’s great promise here, but there’s also danger. I’ve witnessed the rise of quantitative methods and seen the waves of evidence-based medicine and evidence-based management break on the intellectual shore. Both have brought important change, but both have suffered from some common failings that are likely to show up around EBHR. Here are six things to think about.

Not everything that is measurable is countable. Good performance measurement summaries should be read, not reduced to a Likert Scale and statistically manipulated.

Measure the important things. It’s better to have less precise measures of important things than precise measures of the unimportant. Beware: it’s easy to settle for the illusion that what you can measure is important.

Not all evidence is created equal. The evidence that will matter most in HR is more like the research in sociology and anthropology and less like physics or lab psychology.

Both metrics and methods are important. Both need to match the needs and capabilities of the organization.

Sophistication is often the enemy. It’s easy to assume that more sophisticated is better, but in real life that’s not usually the case. If you can’t explain an algorithm to a fifteen-year-old, you probably don’t understand it.

Most important: however cool, trendy, and sophisticated, if it doesn’t contribute to business success, it’s a waste of time and money.

For Further Reading

Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense by Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton. It’s the best book there is on Evidence-Based Management and will give you a sense of both the promise and the pitfalls of EBHR.

The Conference Board Report on “Evidence-Based Human Resources” gives excellent background on the development of the evidence-based movement in HR, as well as a good introduction to concepts and caveats.

Wally Bock is a coach, a writer and President of Three Star Leadership.

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